(Editor’s note: Although this is, first and foremost, an evaluation of the running backs, the talent/experience of the offensive line is factored into the ranking.)
13) John Trainor/Joe Walker/Aaron Kemper (Army) – Like Navy, you need a scorecard to keep track of all the Black Knight ball carriers. Kemper, a fullback, is the leading returning rusher with 544 yards in ‘15, but look for slotbacks Trainor and Walker to get well more than their 56 combined touches from last year. Former linebackers Andy Davidson and Cole Macek have moved to fullback to assist Kemper. QB Ahmad Bradshaw should lead the team in totes. Objective No. 1: reduce the abominable 38 fumbles, many of which came on center-quarterback exchanges.
12) Dishon Romine/Joshua Walker/Toneo Gulley/Calvin Cass Jr. (Navy) – As we’ve learned through the years, it doesn’t really matter the name or pedigree of the Midshipmen running backs. It’s the system that allows slotbacks to average seven or eight yards per carry. That being said, only Romine returns with substantial playing time, and even he had just 36 carries (for 378 yards, 10.5-yard average) in ’15. Gone are the main ball carriers – Keenan Reynolds, Chris Swain, Quentin Ezell – who combined for more than 2,700 yards rushing last year alone. The key to any Navy rushing attack, however, will be how new QB Tago Smith handles the decision-making. Plus, and this is extremely significant in the triple option, it’s an entirely brand new offensive line.
11) Dontae Strickland/Jordan Fredericks (Syracuse) – It’s a good thing new HC Dino Babers is a creative offensive mind because he’s going to have to invent some offense for the Orange. QB Eric Dungey, a true dual threat, is a good starting point. But the No. 77 rushing attack (163.2 yards per game) can be hit and miss. Despite averaging 5.7 yards per carry (607 yards) with four TDs, Fredericks was passed up by Strickland in the spring after the latter was used sparingly by the previous regime. Strickland offers the better combination of dash and power. The problem lies mainly up front where right guard Omari Palmer and center Jason Emerich are the only ones with notable experience.
10) Joseph Yearby/Mark Walton (Miami) – Just as QB Brad Kaaya was at the mercy of a porous offensive line last year, so too is the burden on Yearby and Walton, who combined for 1,452 yards on the ground with 15 rushing scores, but averaged a modest 4.3 yards per carry. Yearby rushed for 1,002 of those yards and six TDs, but Walton – who was suspended in the spring following a DUI – had nine TDs on 76 less carries. HC Mark Richt wants to establish a solid ground game, as he almost always had at Georgia, but he’ll want to maximize Kaaya as well. A shortage of offensive tackles impacts Kaaya even more than the ground game.
9) Jela Duncan/Shaun Wilson (Duke) – Shaquille Powell (259 carries in 2014-15) is gone from the No. 37 rushing attack (192.9 yards per game), but Duncan and Wilson are experienced players with 151 carries for 884 yards and seven TDs between them last year. With QB Thomas Sirk’s 803 yards rushing and eight TDs likely lost due to a February Achilles injury, HC David Cutcliffe will rely on his three starters returning along the offensive line, led by all-ACC right tackle Casey Blaser and right guard Tanner Stone. With each passing season, Cutcliffe’s rushing attack just keeps getting better and better, which is no small task at a basketball school.
8) James Butler (Nevada) – The Wolf Pack could be as high as No. 6 on this list based upon last year’s rushing numbers, the return of Butler, and four of five offensive linemen back from ‘15. Butler was one of two 1,000-yard rushers for the No. 25 rushing attack (210.6) in the country. Don Jackson added 1,078 yards, 4.7 yards per carry and eight TDs to Butler’s brilliant sophomore campaign in which he rushed for 1,345 yards, a 6.5-yard average and 10 TDs. Head coach Brian Polian hired Chip Kelly disciple Tim Cramsey (Montana State) to spice up the passing attack. But QB Tyler Stewart and the pass blocking of the offensive line can be inconsistent at times, which means look for Butler to crack the 250-carry mark. The only thing preventing Nevada/Butler from being rated higher is that the Wolf Pack are from the Mountain West and the next two programs compete in the ACC.
7) Travon McMillian/Sam Rogers (Virginia Tech) – Quite a rookie debut for the 6-foot-0, 196-pound McMillian, who rushed for 1,042 yards on 200 carries (5.2) with seven TDs, especially when you consider the Hokies’ QB situation was shaky without banged up Michael Brewer for nearly half the season. Four starters return on the offensive line and HC Justin Fuente brings his pick-up-the-pace offense from Memphis. The No. 82 rushing offense in the country – due mainly to the 34 sacks allowed – will benefit behind an offensive front that has 89 combined starts among them, led by guards Wyant Teller and Augie Conte. Rogers, a 224-pound fullback, is an occasional change of pace and short-yardage option.
6) Matt Dayes/Jaylen Samuels (N.C. State) – Only a foot injury with five games remaining prevented Dayes (865 yards, 6.5, 12 TDs) from becoming the Wolfpack’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 13 years. In fact, he easily would have blown past 1,000 yards. It’s notable that for a team that couldn’t win two in a row following a soft non-conference slate and whose last five losses were by double digits managed to finish 30th in rushing (202.1 per game). Samuels is a running back by trade who is listed as a tight end. The jack-of-all-trades had a combined 965 yards rushing-receiving in ’15. One way or another, he’ll get his touches as will Dayes, who has 1,690 career rushing yards and a combined 30 rushing-receiving TDs.
5) D’Onta Foreman/Chris Warren (Texas) – For a team that won just five games last year, the Longhorns are not short on nicknames, at least in the offensive backfield. With Foreman, a 238-pound junior, and Warren, a 255-pound sophomore, they’re known as the Smash Brothers by some and Thunderstorm by others. The duo helped lead the Longhorns to 224.8 yards rushing per game (No. 17 nationally) in ’15. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that had a true freshman at left tackle last year (Connor Williams) and likely another one this year (center Zach Shackelford). This crew will challenge Notre Dame’s questionable front seven right out of the gate. Texas managed just 60 yards rushing on 29 carries in last year’s opener against the Irish with Foreman//Warren combining for just six carries and nine yards.
4) LJ Scott/Madre London/Gerald Holmes (Michigan State) – Not only did the Spartans lose their triggerman – quarterback Connor Cook – but also out the door went mauling left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen. And yet a trio of running backs with size (Scott 233, London 216, Holmes 216) are back and ready to pound the rock even more with the inexperience at signalcaller. Scott rushed for a modest 699 yards, 4.8 yards per carry and 11 TDs, the most noteworthy of which came in the Spartans’ narrow victory over Iowa in the Big Ten championship when he refused to be denied at the goal line. Holmes and London combined for another 1,040 yards on 229 carries (4.5-yard average) and 11 TDs for an offense that surprisingly ranked 94th in rushing (with just 21 sacks allowed). The ground-game numbers will jump up as the pass attempts dwindle.
3) Tarean Folston/Josh Adams/Dexter Williams (Notre Dame) – The Irish running backs are vastly underrated on the national scene. Maybe it’s because with Folston, it’s out of sight, out of mind after getting three carries in ’15 before suffering a season-ending injury. But Adams’ rookie season has been way overlooked. He set a Notre Dame freshman record with 835 yards rushing. He averaged 7.1 yards per his 117 carries and scored six TDs. His 98-yard run against a solid-if-unspectacular Wake Forest team tied an NCAA rookie record. He, along with C.J. Prosise, spearheaded the No. 28 rushing attack (207.6 yards per game). The team averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Folston will provide some much-needed skill between the tackles. Throw in sophomore Williams into the equation. Behind an offensive line that lost Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer, it’s still a solid unit with Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars leading the way.
2) Justin Davis/Ronald Jones II (USC) – Challenging Georgia (Nick Chubb/Sony Michel) and Oklahoma (Samaje Perine/Joe Mixon) for the best one-two punch at running back are the Trojans after Davis (902 yards, 5.3, 7 TDs) and Jones (987 yards, 6.5, 8 TDs) kept defenses honest and offset Cody Kessler’s 149 yards lost on sacks. Don’t let the No. 70 rushing rank fool you. Between them, they had 13 games averaging at least 5.8 yards per carry and nine games of at least 80 yards rushing. Like Michigan State, the Trojans will turn more toward the ground game with inexperience at the quarterback position. Differentiating among USC, Michigan State and Notre Dame at running back is difficult. The deciding factor is the Trojans’ offensive line that boasts a ton of experience and talent.
1) Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) – A one-man backfield unto himself. He rushed for 2,109 yards to help lead the Cardinal to a No. 19 ranking on the ground (223.7 yards per game) while snagging a team-high 45 passes for 645 yards and five TDs. The only thing he didn’t do consistently was score running the ball in the red zone, and he still finished with eight TDs. The rest of the running back corps in unproven, but as long as McCaffrey’s on the field, he is the running back corps. This is another program that will bring its quarterback along slowly, particularly in the early stages of the season, while the tried-and-true ground game gets them over some rough spots without the heady Kevin Hogan at the controls. When it doubt, the Cardinal will simply put the ball in McCaffrey’s hands.
1. Notre Dame (4 – QB 1st, RB 3rd)
2. USC (5 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd)
3. Stanford (6 – QB 5th, RB 1st)
4. Texas (9 – QB 4th, RB 5th)
5t. Miami (12 – QB 2nd, RB 10th)
5t. Michigan St. (12 – QB 8th, RB 4th)
7. Nevada (15 – QB 7th, RB 8th)
8t. N.C. State (16 – QB 10th, RB 6th)
8t. Virginia Tech (16 – QB 9th, RB 7th)
10. Syracuse (17 – QB 6th, RB 11th)
11. Duke (20 -- QB 11th, RB 9th)
12t. Navy (25 – QB 13th, RB 12th)
12t. Army (25 – QB 12th, RB 13th)